Quebec's Threat to Fly the Coop Gets Canadians Talking

AROUND the world, Canadians identify themselves with their No. 1 pastime: hockey. But discussion on Quebec's possible separation is another national sport gaining prominence - with just as many jabs, slapshots, and penalties.

The first referendum, held in 1980, gave Quebeckers the opportunity to choose to separate from Canada. Sixty percent favored staying in Canada. Later, the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord attempted to put an end to the separation question. ``Distinct society'' was the catch phrase. Quebeckers wanted recognition of their differences and of status distinct from the rest of Canada.

Gilles Duceppe, a prominent separatist, explains, ``Quebec voted against because we thought the accords were not enough. Canada voted against because they thought the accords gave too much.''

The 1980 referendum appeared to have quelled the desire for separation. But longing for independence erupted during federal and provincial elections in the 1990s. Provincially, the Parti Qucois narrowly won the election on a mandate based almost solely on separation. In 1993, the provincially based Bloc Quebecois (BQ) garnered enough votes to form the official opposition in the federal House of Commons. The opposition party, whose job is to act as a check on the federal government's handling of national concerns, is primarily a defender of Quebec's interests.

Fifteen years after the first referendum, separatists are once again pushing for secession from Canada. Mr. Duceppe, party whip for the BQ, likens the situation to a young person growing into adulthood. ``You're not sure of yourself.... You want to go, but at the same time it wasn't that bad in your parents' home. But if you don't make the move, you'll never be an adult.'' Separatists view Quebec independence as a confirmation of political and cultural maturity.

And momentum is building. Already Quebec has produced a draft bill and set the referendum question. In January, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau traveled to France to gain support in anticipation of Quebec's independence.

A referendum date hasn't been set, but many believe it will come at the peak of enthusiasm for separation. Part of the momentum is fueled by the rampant Canadian debt, $661.2 billion (Canadian; US $462.84 billion). Duceppe sees the Canadian debt as a crisis: ``We're in a sense like two fire trucks, facing a burning house and instead of acting, we're discussing who's going to move.''

Ironically, the draft bill that outlines separation for Quebec is at the same time a continuum of many of the rights Quebec enjoys as a Canadian province, such as economic association with the rest of Canada and use of Canadian currency. Participation as a sovereign nation in NAFTA, GATT, and NATO is another assumed right.

The bill also stipulates that citizenship in Quebec and Canada can be concurrent. It is not clear how citizenship would be handled should Quebec separate. Some are concerned that granting Canadian citizenship to Quebec's 7,293,100 residents in their new status as citizens of another nation could cause a conundrum for the Canadian Department of Immigration; yet denying the citizenship they have had all their lives would seem uncompassionate.

Recent polls (by Quebec pollsters CROP, CREATEC-PLUS, and SONDAGEM) have indicated that if the referendum had been held in January, the ``no'' vote would have won marginally. But 75 percent of separatists and about half of all Quebeckers surveyed believe that Quebec will separate from Canada at some point. Duceppe feels ``the time is now.''

In Quebec, those who can picture the province separating outnumber those who actually want it to. The issue has been ingrained in the Canadian psyche. It is debated over a drink at the water cooler like the play-by-plays of last night's hockey game. Political pundits are predicting a June referendum. Regardless of a ``yes'' or ``no'' outcome, the Quebec debate will not cease. This game is going into overtime. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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